In 1973, 55-year-old James Dobson constructed a little building on McAllister drive in East Saint John.
“Unbeknownst to him, he was incubating businesses out of it,” says his son, Derek Dobson. “There was an insurance company he had partnered with and they started out of that building, a small trucking company also started out of this building.”
One day, a man named Malcolm Barrett, who worked at a company called Wholesale Distribution in Woodstock, pulled into the building’s lot with a bunch of trailers.
“He said, ‘You should be selling trailers here,’ ” says Derek. “Dad and a few of the other guys that were there said ‘yup, roll them off and put them right there in the corner.'”
That was the beginning of Leisure Time Sales, an RV and outdoor equipment company that’s celebrating 45 years in business this year. The company has moved around a few times since 1973, but today it’s headquartered in the Town of Quispamsis outside of Saint John.
Like Leisure Time, the RV business has come a long way in the past 45 years. Back in 1973, the industry was still quite young. Trailers were oversized, bulky, heavy and with interiors that would remind you of the sofa in your grandparents’ basement.
“We had orange and green interiors. We didn’t have the nice floral and pastel colours that we have today. But the consumer was the same. The consumer back then was looking to get out and enjoy nature, enjoy the outdoors, to have fun with their families, which is exactly what our consumer is looking for today,” says Derek, the store’s current owner.
“Back then we’d have mom and dads with three or four kids and they’d pack into a small 18 ft trailer or hardtop camper and hook it on and they would travel all around the Maritimes and down into the states.”
Much like cars, today’s RVs, trailers and motorhomes have evolved with technology. The market has also evolved as well, it’s not just families with three or four kids looking to buy an RV anymore.
“The industry itself has gotten more diversified and specific to the consumer,” says Derek “Back in 1973, you’d have a couple of motorhome sizes. So the consumer was left with having to pick what the industry delivered. Today, the consumer is directing what the industry is delivering.”
A look at Leisure Time Sales then and Now:
Though there’s no shortage of new products people want, being in the RV sales business isn’t an easy ride. Derek says the company has faced challenges over the years, including economic downturns in the Saint John and New Brunswick economies, a handful of recessions and gas and interest rate hikes. Derek says adapting to these changes have been key to the company’s survival.
“But never once did we waiver from the RV business. That’s been one of our secrets and one of our successes is that we’ve always been there to look after the RV customer. The beauty of the business has been we’ve been able to adapt,” says Derek.
“For example, when fuel prices went up and people stopped traveling, there was more park model business. It was a very easy transition for us and people stayed with us and traded trailers in to buy park models.”
Harbour Station RV show January 25-28
Yet, the RV business is often considered seasonal. With many of the sales taking place in the spring and summer months, businesses like Leisure Time need to get creative to keep revenue flowing during the cold Maritime winters. For the past 31 years, Leisure Time has done this by hosting a huge annual trade show at Harbour Station in Saint John.
The show, which takes place this year from January 25 – 28, is longest-running show in Atlantic Canada. It’s also the largest single dealer show in Atlantic Canada and was one of the first single dealers shows ever in Canada.
“January is what most think is a slow period of time for the RV business,” says Derek. “However, we make it a lot busier for ourselves by doing the show. What better thing to do in the middle of winter than come in and be warm and look at one of your favorite past times and take advantage of good deals?”
The idea behind the show is to give people incentive to buy now by offering discounts and incentives, as opposed to waiting until the spring and summer.
“We sell a lot of units that weekend,” he says. “We just go and we try to make the best opportunity to come in and make a decision in January instead of having to wait until March, April or May when prices will be up.”
Transportation is an interesting space to be in right now. With the rise of smart-cars and talks of a takeover of autonomous vehicles, Derek says the RV industry has been on high alert on what such innovation will mean for them. But he’s not worried.
“There’s chatter about how that’s going to impact the RV business because there won’t be vehicles to tow them with and things like that,” he says. “But I think there will always be a component or product that’s going to be there to tow the RVs with. The industry will adapt, it will change and it will morph into whatever the consumer wants it to be.”
With 45-years in business, Derek says Leisure Time Sales isn’t just a success on its own, it was also the catalyst for the Dobson Group of Companies, a group of eight businesses with more than 150 employees run by members of the Dobson family, including Dobson Chrysler in Saint John, RV World in Fredericton, Port City Kia in Saint John, Moncton RV Centre, and a property management company Oakville Homes.
“We’ve diversified dramatically. It wouldn’t have started without a small building being built on McAllister Drive,” says Derek.
“Nothing was done intentionally, there was no plan to build a business and how to do it. It was done through evolution and just looking at opportunities and taking opportunities when they arose.”